Change what I can and pray the hope will not disappear.
Darid 20th, 1513 – Outskirts of River Sulis, Lothianshire, Albion
The fire was almost embers and it seemed like every creak-pop-fizzle that came from it was specifically designed to make it all that much harder for Darin to get to sleep. The bench wasn’t uncomfortable, sure he couldn’t stretch out, but he tended to sleep curled up on one side anyway. The cushion was burlap, but worn soft by at least a decade of sitters and stuffed with wool. Even the temperature of the room without shirt, vest or coat was fairly comfortable and Darin had no inclination to go hunt up a spare blanket.
Nope, if Darin had to guess, he would say that it was the presence of Joshua in Sara-Beth’s room that was keeping him awake. Having the son of a baron under your roof was certainly unnerving enough to keep anyone awake. And that comment of Sara-Beth’s–that Josh had asked to stay. Given that his bed at home was surely, surely better than Sara-Beth’s, why would he ask to stay here? Maybe it had something to do with the fear in his voice when he said that he couldn’t go to the hospital because they’d tell his father.
Unlike his mother, who had died giving birth to him, Darin remembered Cookie just fine, a tall, broad shouldered man with a crooked smile and skin the color of the cocoa that would sometimes get served during the long winter at the Academy. He had had a long, evil looking scar running across his face, but there hadn’t been an evil bone in his body according to anyone Darin had ever talked to.
But one night, when Cookie had been coming back from his job, fighting had broken out in the streets, and when the dust had cleared, Darin’s father was among the injured. He’d been taken to the hospital, but being only a poor gardener and not anyone important, he was seen to too late to save him.
It was why Sara-Beth had become a nurse, so that she could keep someone else’s father from bleeding to death when he could have been saved, no matter how much money he had in his purse.
Cookie would have died to save Darin, no matter how much of a bear he had looked to be, Darin knew that. It was one of the memories he held deep inside of him and brought out when things seemed their bleakest. He supposed you couldn’t count on a baron for that, he probably expected other people to do their dying for his family. But what must the Baron be like that Joshua would rather bleed than go where they might tell his father?
And, really, passing all this stuff through his mind like a miner panning for gold was not going to help him get to sleep any faster. He turned his mind to one of Brother Loki’s boring-ass history lessons, the one they were to have a test on next week, and that seemed to do the trick, leadening his eyes and letting his thoughts drift far enough for him to fall asleep.
It could have been hours, it could have been minutes, but something roused Darin out of a peculiar dream about climbing along an aqueduct in some old city he was looking for something. What it was left him as what had woken him sunk into his consciousness.
“No, I don’t–I don’t. No!” It was a masculine voice calling out, seeping through every crack in the plaster and woodwork, creeping under the door. The voice ebbed to a bare whisper as Darin pushed himself off the bench, a series of pops running down his vertebrae with the movement. Joshua, it must have been one of the nightmares that Sara-Beth had warned him about.
He went to the door to Sara-Beth’s room and pushed it open. Josh was tossing on the bed, thrashing as if he were fighting against something, his voice smeared to nothingness by fear.
“M’lord?” Darin asked, his hand shook as he reached out for the shoulder under the coverlet. “My Lord, Joshua?” He shook the shoulder, lightly, then harder. Nothing–then suddenly with a shuddering gasp, the young man’s eyes flew wide. Joshua gulped down air as if something had been smothering him in his sleep, his entire demeanor disoriented and confused.
Darin started to snatch his hand back when Joshua caught it in a grip that easily could have ground the bones in his wrist, but didn’t. They both stared at each other for a long moment. “My lord?” Darin whispered.
“Darin?” Joshua whispered hoarsely.
“Aye.” Darin said, tugging his arm at the grip that Joshua still had on his wrist.
“Oh, Wright.” The other boy swallowed hard and panted. “I-uh…”
“Do you have nightmares a lot?” Darin asked, then he could have hit himself because that was a good way to piss the blonde boy off. But whatever finding Darin standing there instead of–um–whatever it was he’d been dreaming about–seemed to throw the other boy off.
“Often enough.” Joshua pushed a hand through his blonde hair that even stringy with sweat and tousled by rough sleep was still neater and better kept than Darin’s was when he’d just combed it.
“Um, can I get you anything? A glass of water? Some tea?”
“… Can you stay with me?” Darin blinked.
“I–uh–,” Darin stammered.
“Please?” It was a word that Darin had so not been expecting to hear out of a man who constantly reminded everyone around him that he was above such things as courtesy, that he found himself nodding and then clambering onto the bed beside Joshua. It was a little–okay–a lot awkward, especially the brief moment he found himself straddling Joshua’s legs to get onto the other side of the bed.
Joshua watched him until he settled down before collapsing back against the pillow like a puppy who’d played too long and hard. He curled up wondering what the hell he was thinking, before sleep came up behind him and bashed him hard in the head too.
Once again, Josh woke up disoriented and confused. His head throbbed, his face and torso covered in tight hot flares that indicated a bruise. His lip stung as did his cheeks where they’d been split or abraded by the impact of that thug’s fist. The things he did for friends. Philipa would owe him for the next two centuries at least. Not that he counted on living that long. Hell, if mother had provided father with a spare, Josh wouldn’t have counted on living to see eighteen.
And even that wouldn’t save him. The Orkneys might not be as egalitarian as the du Lacs, what with their policy of first born inherits regardless of gender, but they’d had female heirs in the past and it hadn’t bothered anyone who mattered. Although who knew if Grandfather Bertram would count as someone who mattered. And he’d never stand for a daughter who wouldn’t do her duty. And that duty included boys for heir and preferably spare.
But that didn’t solve the answer of where he was, other than in someone else’s bed, or the disorienting feeling of being–safe. The latter was far more worrisome than the first. It certainly wasn’t the first time he found himself in a strange bed, in fact it was only that his mother had at least tried to make sure he was raised a gentleman that didn’t find him in strange beds more often.
Safe, however, that wasn’t something he was even passingly used to being. When your father was the local lord and almost no one cared to piss him off there weren’t too many places where you were safe. He certainly never felt that way at home. But here, wherever that was, he did feel it and he had to lever himself away from the complacent feeling that wanted him to stay here, to cling to that feeling of safety and protection to try and wrap his pounding head around the puzzle of just where the fuck he was.
His hand lifted to rub at his temple, dragging across bare skin in it’s wake, which, he realized with a blink was what was under his cheek as well, a taut torso, almost bony and sprinkled lightly with coarse hair.
“Hmmm?” A male voice rumbled, the intake of breath to make the sound causing the lungs under his ear to expand. “Holy fuck!” Darin! Josh registered about the time his head thumped against the pillow as the other boy scrambled out of the bed. The sudden movement set off a cacophony in his head and it was with a muttered “ow-ow-ow.” He followed Darin out the door into the main room of the cottage.
It wasn’t hard. There wasn’t that far to go and even had there been a lot more space to go the steady stream of saints names punctuated with profanity would have been a tip off as to where he was.
“Darin?” Josh asked. “Darin.” It was like it didn’t even register. In his best “My father is the Baron, you will listen” voice he tried again. “Darin, stop!”
“My lord, I am sorry, I didn’t–I wasn’t–what the hell was that?” Darin asked. Josh wasn’t sure he knew, but the shouting set his head off again. This was worse than getting drunk, at least getting drunk was fun to get into.
“I don’t…” That was about as far as he got before Darin was off again. Josh stepped around him, maybe if he were between the other boy and the door he’d stop with the pacing and preferably the swearing. Darin crossed his arms and looked away.
“Sorry, m’lord.” He dropped his eyes to the floor. There was just something wrong with a contrite Darin. He couldn’t say that he knew the other boy well, but his defiance had always identified him, marked him. According the law of the land, of society, he was inferior. It was a tenet his maternal grandfather was always quick to remind them of. They were noble. Well, theoretically.
As far as Josh was concerned, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot that was noble about his grandfather, and quite honestly the lowest street rat probably had more nobility than his father did. But almost everyone was willing to play along with that division. Not the nouveau riche merchants, but that was more like they were looking to hop over the fence from not-noble to noble not denying that the noble class existed.
Usually one look in Darin’s eyes told Josh that the other boy saw right through him. That he had seen that there was no difference between the two of them and that he wouldn’t play along with the farce that said there was.
So to see him staring at the rough wood floor of the cottage, eyes veiled by his thick lashes, skin pulled too tight over the prominent cheekbones catching the firelight, here, now, seeing him fall back into the trap that Josh so admired him–even if he wouldn’t have said it–for avoiding, it twisted something inside Josh’s chest.
His hand shot out, fingers curling under the other boy’s chin, forcing it up, forcing Darin to look him in the eyes. Those same fingers skated easily along the soft skin prickled by stubble in need of a shave to tangle in Darin’s mahogany hair. His other hand snaked around Darin’s waist, pulling Darin and his too thin ribcage closer.
Before his mind caught up to why the hell he just pulled Darin into his arms, his lips were crashing into Darin’s with a complete lack of finesse he’d have felt embarrassed about if he weren’t just a little more caught up in why the hell he was kissing another man in the first place.
Darin made a yelping sound and pulled back against the arm braced behind him back. Josh released him as quickly as he’d caught him up. Then they were back to staring at each other, Darin’s eyes were wide, pupils flared seemingly with more than just the low light, his fists were flexing, but oddly not as if Darin were ready to hit him.
That put Darin a couple of steps over where Josh was, because he really did sort of want to hit himself. What was he thinking? Was he thinking? I’m not mature enough for this! but that had really never mattered to the situations he found himself in. All he could do was muddle along.
Darin licked his lips and Josh felt his eyes shoot to the movement, brain still two or three steps behind his body. If nothing else he needed to bring those two things back into line.
“I don’t know where my head is.” Josh admitted to Darin.
“We’ll blame it on the fact that some mentula used you as a punching bag a few hours ago.” Darin offered, his eyes once more on the floor. Josh wasn’t sure if it was because of him kissing Darin, because of the fight, because of the noble vs. commoner thing, or because he’d just used Reman crudity in front of a nobleman.
Of course, Bertram would have pointed out that this was where the greatest difference between noble and not-noble lay. A nobleman might use profanity amongst his close male friends, there was little wrong with the occasional swear or off color joke, however he would never be so crass as to use such language in front of his betters. For a peasant to call some man a prick in front of a nobleman would be like a nobleman using that language in front of St. Robert!
And of course, no nobleman would be that base. Gutter rat breeding always showed. Blah, blah, blah.
“Right.” Josh agreed softly, wondering why that just felt–wrong.
“My Lord, I…” Josh’s eyes jumped up from where they were studying a crack in the floor to Darin’s face. “Is something wrong?” It was the wrong thing to ask. Really. Because Darin seemed honestly concerned and his brain was still half a step behind the rest of him.
What he would say or do this time, Josh didn’t know, however it seemed he wasn’t going to say anything. Instead he took a step back and started to turn away so maybe the other man wouldn’t see him burst into tears.
It didn’t work, of course, because the first drop slid down Josh’s cheek before he even had the chance to pull his hands up to shield it. He found himself letting out a wail, a thin, out of place sound in the thick air of the cottage.
Darin tentatively reached an arm out, spanning across his shoulders as Josh balled his hands into fists hoping that the pain from nails digging into his palms would slow the stream of tears down his face.
But it didn’t and all Josh could do was stand there and sob and try so hard not to lean into Darin as he murmured things into Josh’s hair, though he could feel the breath stirring the hair, tickling his ear, he couldn’t have told you, even if you held a knife to his throat, what the other boy was saying.
That feeling of safety and protection was back. Like nothing could hurt him, here and now, that somehow Darin, unlike all of Josh’s nobly born friends and relatives, could–would stand in the way of whatever was out there in the dark, whatever was lurking in the shadows and the corners, even from all of the secrets that roamed the halls of the old Orkney keep, the one his ancestors had built when they first came to Albion, when there first was an Albion, the one that had burned so furiously that even the stone had melted leaving pillars of glass in their wake.
As if he could somehow protect Josh from being a Carico, a de Ganis, an Orkney.
And perversely that just made Josh sob more because he couldn’t, obviously he couldn’t. Nothing could. But Darin let him cry. And Josh just rode the storm out–it was really all he could do. And finally, when his head felt like it was one teardrop away from exploding entirely, Darin stepped away and looked at him.
He should have explained, he should have said something. Done something. But when he opened his mouth all that came out was a muttered “I should get home.” And he should, he didn’t know what time it was, but something in him sensed that dawn was nearer than farther. And he didn’t dare let the sun catch him anywhere but in his own bed at home.
Darin nodded, seemingly content with out any answers at all, and went to hunt up his clothing and Josh’s shoes. In silence, a rather creepy silence as if there really were ghosts floating all around them, Darin walked Josh to the stable where his horse was and stood on the street corner under an oil lamp, to watch him ride off.
It was still dark when he put his horse in the stable and crept into the house using the servants’ stairs. Maybe he would be able to get in, get laid down, and miss everyone who might possible inquire as to why he was beat all the fuck and where he’d been all night by sleeping the morning til his mother dragged Bet off to whatever nonsense they surely had planned for the day.
The door didn’t even squeak when he opened it and slipped inside, but the room wasn’t empty. Just a flash of bright hair in the darkness set his heart racing.
“Don’t worry, mother didn’t even notice you were gone. And I covered for you with Father.” Elizabet sat cross-legged on the bed, dressed in a white linen shift but her hair showing that she hadn’t slept at all.
“Well, given the way you look, I’m even more glad I did.” Her eyes were on his back as he settled onto the bed. “You know how that layered bruise look distresses the gentler hearts in my life.” Josh snorted.
“What are you doing here? You didn’t have to wait up just to tell me you covered for me.” She could have told him the morning. Or left him a note, or hell woken him up.
“You know, we are related to people with peculiar blindspots, brother.” Elizabet smiled cynically. “Nobody ever thinks to look for me in your room. Ever.”
“You’re hiding out?” Josh asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I just know that something seemed to say I didn’t want someone to find me tonight.” Elizabet hesitated between each of the words as if trying to work out how to say it. One of her feelings, his mother would dismiss. Josh, however, remembered that some of the most powerful witches and wizards in Albion’s history were descended from the same line that spawned him and Bet. Sometimes a feeling was a feeling, sometimes a feeling was premonition.
“Well, if no one looks for you here, you’re welcome to be here whenever you want to be here.” Josh looked at his baby sister, wishing there were more he could do, but she was a locked book even to him and he couldn’t dream at having the key.
“Thanks. You–don’t mind if I catch a nap, here?” Elizabet asked, something in her eyes that felt like the same only partially caged fear that his own held.
“It’s the least I can do.” And it was, he’d have given his arm to be able to do more.